tv Tavis Smiley WHUT October 17, 2012 7:00pm-7:30pm EDT
tavis: good evening. from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. tonight marked the final time both candidates can address their issues, as the third and final debate next week deals solely with policy. there has been little mentioned about them many americans who now find themselves near the poverty level. how can it be that a country with such a noble history of social justice failed to do this? tonight, peter dreier. from -- peter dreier, from occidental college. his latest book is called 2: "the 100 greatest americans of the 20th century." we are glad to have you with our conversation with peter dreier, coming up.
>> there is a saying that dr. king had that said there is always the right time to do the right thing. i just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. we know that we are only halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have work to do. walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the u.s. as we work together, we can stamp hunger out. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. tavis: peter dreier is a professor of politics and chair of a department at occidental college and author of a new text called "the 100 greatest americans of the 20th century: a
social justice hall of fame." peter dreier, good to have you on this program. >> it is good to be here, tavis. tavis: as i said at the top, there is still not a lot of talk about the least among us. there is a lot of talk about poverty. with a country that has such a social justice history, how is it that this seems to be missing in this campaign? >> i think that the history of this country, particularly the 20th century, it shows that when there are grass-roots protests and people in the streets making noise, and their voices get hurt, then the politicians respond. i think that is what we need -- and their voices get heard, then the politicians respond. i think that is what we need. you can see mitt romney's
zipping over to the right as fast as he can -- this is to appease the right wing and the billionaires that are finding him. the community organizing groups, the faith-based groups, those pushing for a foreclosure relief and a higher minimum wage and a stronger jobs program, i think if the president gets reelected, and they are out there protesting in the streets, i think we will see a different kind of obama administration in the second term. tavis: you are not the first person that has said that he might be a differently if he gets a second term. i asked what in his backstory, what in his record, what in his life gives you reason to believe that he will respond to a progressive push? >> i think the best example of that was during the health-care
debate. it looked like the president had given up, and all of a sudden, the folks were out there protesting in front of insurance companies, going over to the homes of c.e.o.'s, getting themselves arrested, and i think the president got a backbone as a result of that, and i think that is how we got health-care reform passed in 2010. people who believe that -- i think it was unrealistic. i think the history of this country is that when there is pressure from progressive, grass roots organizations, there are allies of the progressive movement regardless of what is going on in the streets, but i think president obama is going to read what is going on in the country and will respond to pressure. tavis: i dare not debate with
you. you are the expert here. but if president obama was quick to respond to progressive pressure, the health-care debate would not have turned out to be what it was in the first place. it was a different policy than what came at the end. there was what he said on the campaign trail, and then when he got in, you water it down. with all due respect to the folks in the street, nancy pelosi got in his face and told him off and told rahm emanuel off and said, "i am not giving up all the i have done, making all of the sacrifices -- we are not going to give in on this legislation." "we are going to push this thing through." so nancy pelosi had a lot to do with pushing the president. he would not have been in
trouble in the first place, and it would not have been so watered down. >> there is a great story in my book about how some activists were meeting with roosevelt during the depression, and they were trying to have some legislation passed, and he said, "i agree with everything you just said. now, go out and make me do it." i wish obama had learned that lesson. some of the high-profile people told the progressive activists to basically slowdown -- slow down. it took about one year into the obama administration before they did it up again. that is when the health-care debate got a second wind, and i think that is one of the lessons of this book.
everyone to martin luther king to the current situation, you need people on the outside to keep people on the inside honest. tavis: i am glad you mentioned dr. king, one of the greatest americans of the 20th century. let me link king to obama, since you mentioned both of their names. president obama, on the fund- raising trail, he has said any number of times -- he has retold that story many times. i have got a whole bunch of romney questions, as well. so the president tells this story time and time again. i am not the only one. there are a lot of folks in the media who have written about this. he does not like progressives
whining about this. rahm emanuel, so dismissive of the left, dismissive of progressives. so here is the irony of this. so dr. king is a famously known as foretelling lbj -- is famously known for telling lbj, the president meeting with dr. king and asking martin to tone it down, and he said, "mr. president, it is the protests that are making a powerful." they find it annoying. they do not like the winding -- whining. it is a long way to say if you do not like being pushed by your left flank, if you do not like being pushed by people who are
doing this, then what motivates you? >> there is what happens in the political atmosphere. there are a lot who need to be pushed. raising the minimum wage or doing something about jobs or immigration reform or protecting the rights of women to have choice. i think that those issues are going to come up in the second term, if there is a second term, and the protesters will make a big difference, because the moderate democrats will hear it. just as the moderate republicans had to listen to the tea party. they did not like it either. some of republicans, they did not want the tea party out there holding them accountable and holding their feet to the fire. the moderate democrats will respond to protests. there are people like nancy pelosi and others, other progressives in the senate and in the house that will keep
these issues alive. tavis: are those persons in the social justice hall of fame, the 100 greatest americans in the 20th century, do they all come from the left? are there examples of people from the right who pushed for social justice? >> there were those who pushed their views. when earl warren was the attorney general and then the governor of california, he was a conservative republican. in fact, he was one of those about in tearing japanese americans during the war. -- about treating the japanese americans one way during the war. there are a number of republicans in the book.
in fact, in the early it 20th century -- the early 20th century, there were a few, the governor of california, and even fewer roosevelt, who has an ambiguous record. -- even theodore roosevelt, who has an empire -- -- an ambiguous record. there are people who kept it alive, like earl warren, who had a change of heart. tavis: let me ask you anyway, because i want to be fair to both sides. paul ryan, and there are those things that people say about him. lambasting his plan. but he, more than romney, more than obama, more than biden
talks about the issue of poverty. he gave an entire speech about poverty in america. he has in his own way of dealing with the issue -- he has his own way of dealing with the issue. i wonder whether or not there is something to appeal specifically to him about why social justice matters, talking about the poor, raising the issue of poverty, even though he may be wrong. >> i think it is mostly lip service, to be honest. his voting record in congress is entirely about cutting budget priorities that help the poor. you do not see him supporting raising the minimum wage or supporting labor unions. you do not see him supporting expanding the earned-income tax credits or giving more money for public schools. there is a long history of catholic social justice, and a
lot of people in my book reflect that. dorothy day. he is a right wing conservative, and he can try to mask that during the campaign, just as romney is trying to do that with some of his right-wing police, but i think if they get elected, it will be a disaster -- romney is trying to do that with some of his right-wing beliefs. a saving grace if romney and ryan get elected -- the best hope for progress of politics in this country is for obama to get reelected and then to be pushed by cresson's -- by progresses. fighting for union rights, fighting on behalf of the disenfranchised, and i think that movement, as it appears today in the form of community
organizing, like the alliance of californians for community empowerment, and the national people's action, if they get a second wind, in some part because the occupy wall street movement helped to change the country -- people are talking about the incredible power of wall street and the right wing of billionaires, -- right winged billionaires -- the mood of the country is much different. the polls show that even republicans think that big corporations and wall street have too much power, so there is a movement under the surface that is going to explode and make a big difference. tavis: everything you just said is predicated on the notion or the belief that those persons who care about social-justice issues are going to activate
themselves, that they are going to use the agency that they have, that they are going to, to put it another way, are going to assign themselves. that is a big if. i raise that because in his first term -- i understand the second term is very different. in the first term, so many social-justice stalwarts have been silenced by the obama administration. they have been silenced. we are your best hope. what do you want? boss or romney? the unions have not been as vocal or strong -- us or romney? the unions have not been as vocal or strong. i will not run the list. the environmental movement. there are bits and pieces here and there. the occupy movement came out for
a while. some have been sidelined and silenced in the first term, hoping to get a second term, that he will become a real fighter, that he will become an lbj or an fdr. tell me why that you think these persons, in the spirit of these great americans who live today, are going to take up the gauntlet in the second term. >> i think after obama got elected in 2008, these progressive activists got a little seduced by being close to power, and the obama inside staff people were pretty good at seducing them, and i think there is still a bit of that, but i think after four years of frustration, there have been some good things, but it clearly frustrated a lot of people who thought it would be a much more progressive administration, and
even counting the right-wing assaulted -- assault in congress, i think people are aware that if you are going to make progress in the second term, there has to be something out there. a group of men organizing groups here in california tried to get a home on a bill rights -- a group of various organizing groups here in california try to get a homeowner's bill of rights. governor brown signed that bill, which really pretax a lot of people from the worst parts of foreclosure -- which really protects a lot of people from the worst parts of foreclosure. the grass-roots movement is ready to explode, and i think that you are right that the obama administration may or may not welcome that, but it does not matter. if it happens, they will be held accountable, and i think that is a good thing, and that is what
the history of the 20th century teaches us. tavis: just looking at the cover of the book, for get cracking a book, just looking at the cover, some of the greatest -- forget cracking the book, just looking at the cover, some of the greatest americans and the issues that they fought for and the game that they won, they haven't benefited all americans. -- they have benefited all americans. i am not naïve in asking this question, but why is it that those on the right do not understand that when there is a push for this kind of social justice, we all win? >> it turns out in 1911, the first socialist congress, one man introduced the first social security bill. at the time, people thought that was a radical idea, a socialist
idea, and then franklin roosevelt passed social security during the depression, and now 75% of the tea party members think that social security is a good thing. the right-wing conservatives understand and believe that the government has a responsibility to protect the vulnerable, to protect the elderly, so i think people do get misled fairly easily. they are good at misleading people on gun-control, abortion, gay marriage, things like that, but the churches, the right- winged conservative evangelical churches, they have a social- justice, upon it to them, as well. -- they have a social-justice platform to them, as well. i think that corporate america that is funding the tea party,
they have a different agenda than the grass roots people. they want lower taxes on the rich. they want to get rid of labor union. they want to promote more inequality and give people at the top more of the wealth of this country, and i think people on the progressive side have to find a new way of talking about that, and i think that has been happening in the last couple of years, and particularly after occupy wall street. the growing inequality in america. tavis: the americans who pushed forward and advanced all types of social-justice issues, and we are talking all types of people. >> yes. tavis: because of cynicism and a number of issues, it is hard for individuals to get the kind of attraction that they did back in the day because institutions have so much more power now than
they ever had. the institution of wall street. the institution of lobbyists. political parties, etc. so how do people breaks through -- breakthrough -- break through those that have the power? >> the labor union has been weakened, but there are signs of a growing labor movement. immigrants, african-americans, women, so i think the labor movement has pushed back in the last couple of years, and i think we will see a revitalization of organized labor. if you look at the things that were considered radical back then, social security, women's right to vote, dismantling jim crow and poll taxes and things like that, the minimum wage, protecting the environment,
giving workers the right to unionize, those are all things that were once considered radical and are now considered a common sense. most of the women at occidental college do not believe themselves to be feminists, but they believe in the equal right to work and being able to choose and that a woman ought to be able to go to medical school or law school regardless of gender. if we remind people that it takes struggle, it takes protest, as frederick douglass said, if there is no protest, there is no progress, then people get out in the streets. i think, as i said, bubbling under the surface, there is that movement. if it was 1959, and i told you there is going to be a civil rights movement, most people would think that i was crazy, and yet, a few months later,
these four students take over the woolworth's, and that set off a new wave of civil rights activism. tavis: there are a great number of people in this book whose names i expected to find. i see ella baker, thurgood marshall, others. does that say dr. seuss? >> yes. tavis: how did dr. seuss and make this hall of fame? >> what people did not know about him, before he was a famous children's author, he was an editorial cartoonist, and a lot of his children's books have a subtle but very obvious to some people, if you look for it, social-justice a theme.
there is one metaphor for hitler. it is about a bully who abuses its power, -- his power. there is a book about two sides, two different groups of people who were trying to get bigger weapons to kill each other. and one was a dr. seuss book that is not a movie. it was about the environment and how corporate greed was destroying the environment. a generation of young people have been reading dr. seuss to each other for many years. maybe they were not aware that there is a message of social justice and what theodore geisel once said, i do not like people pushing other people around. that is what it is about. tavis: when you get this book, it is hard to imagine what
america would be like without these 100 greatest americans of the 20th-century. the book is written by occidental professor peter dreier, and i am glad to have you on the program. >> thank you. tavis: that is our show for tonight. you can download our app. as always, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. tavis: hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a continuation of our health serious. that is next time. we will see you then. >> there is a saying that dr. king had that said there is always the right time to do the right thing.
i just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. we know that we are only halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have work to do. walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the u.s. as we work together, we can stamp hunger out. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. >> be more. pbs. >> be more. pbs.